CHARLESTON, S.C. — There's nothing Bernie Sanders hates more than a "rigged" system — especially if he rigged it for his own benefit and then watched his handiwork backfire.
Sanders and his allies want Democrats to ignore the rules he helped rewrite and coronate him at the party's convention this summer if he arrives with a plurality — but not a majority — of the delegates. Even though Sanders has long been wary of the role party leaders can play in hand-picking a nominee, his position now is a reversal from the one he took in 2016, when he looked to so-called superdelegates to overcome Hillary Clinton's lead in regular delegates at the end of their primary race.
The risk for Sanders is that voters might begin to believe his definition of a "rigged" system has nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with whether he wins or loses. If they determine that's true when it comes to party rules, they might also start to question whether he's the right messenger to take on the economic and political systems he says are "rigged" against ordinary Americans.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of Sanders' rivals for the party nomination and a fellow traveler on the path of populist challenges to power, pointed out his pirouettes when one of his supporters questioned her position on the party rules Wednesday night. She was asked why "the will of the voters should not matter" if Sanders wins a plurality of delegates but other candidates still fight for the nomination on a second ballot or subsequent votes at the convention.
"That was Bernie's position in 2016, that it should not go to the person who had a plurality," she said during a CNN town hall meeting. "And remember, his last play was to superdelegates. So the way I see this is, you write the rules before you know where everybody stands. And then you stick with those rules. ... I don't see how come you get to change it just because he now thinks there's an advantage to him for doing that."
In effect, Warren was speaking for the rest of the field. During an NBC/MSNBC debate last week, Sanders was the only candidate who indicated he believed that a plurality leader should automatically win the nomination.
Sanders supporters quickly began talking on Twitter about backing a primary challenger to Warren for her Senate seat, creating a hashtag #primarywarren that trended as Warren backers and users who aren't affiliated with either candidate amplified it by deriding their tweets. Warren won re-election in 2018 and is not up again until 2024.
Ultimately, the rules changes before this election were a compromise — not exactly what Sanders wanted — but he's the only 2020 Democratic candidate who had a real hand in the process. His top advisers, including 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver, 2020 campaign co-chair Nina Turner and former Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, were members of the commission.
They succeeded, against stiff opposition from party leaders, in eliminating superdelegates — a pool of Democratic officials who could once cast votes at the convention for any candidate of their choosing — from the first round of balloting. Members of the commission have said that they didn't anticipate a scenario in which several Democratic candidates would be positioned to accumulate significant numbers of delegates, leaving a front-runner well short of a majority heading into the convention.
Nomiki Konst, a top Sanders surrogate in 2016 who served on the commission that rewrote the rules, said Sanders' opponents reek of desperation.
"As of right now only one candidate has a path to reaching 1,991 delegates," she said of the number needed to attain a majority. "And every other candidate's strategy is a .1 percent scenario dependent on going into a very unlikely brokered convention No. 1, and No. 2 taking all the other pledged delegates from every other candidate on a second ballot plus earning all the superdelegates. That's beyond a Hail Mary."
She said Sanders is only talking about the procedural dynamics of winning with a plurality because the party establishment has been so transparent in its desire to stop him at all costs.
"When the establishment is clinging to process, they're losing," she said. "They're like openly discussing their plans to rig the nomination."
Most Democratic strategists say there will probably be an invisible and hard-to-define sliding scale at work if Sanders jumps out to a significant delegate lead. If he had a major edge in the share of delegates, it would be more difficult for the rest of the party to gang up on him and pick a different nominee. But if he had a small edge — say, a few percentage points more of the available delegates than the second- and third-place finishers — it would be tougher for him to lay claim to the nomination without a real challenge.
With only three states having voted so far, and the Super Tuesday contests in 14 states accounting for about one-third of the delegates on March 3, it's still possible that Sanders or another candidate will run away with the nomination. But most Democratic operatives are increasingly convinced that no one will have a majority by the end of the primary season.
The one thing Sanders' early push to frame the debate around a brokered convention has done is clarify how difficult it will be for him to make his case. It was much easier for him to sell the idea that the system was rigged against him when he didn't have a strong hand in writing the rules.